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Iraq and 21st Century Liberation Theology

What key lesson should Poland’s 1980s experience have provided for the liberation of Iraq?

October 1, 2004

What key lesson should Poland's 1980s experience have provided for the liberation of Iraq?

In the U.S. debate over Iraq, most European nations have been criticized as bystanders or even obstacles in the effort to liberate Iraq. They were cast as uncaring, callous, timid — or all of the above.

In hindsight, though, the Europeans feel vindicated — primarily because they apparently absorbed some valuable lessons about the tricky “liberation” issue over the past 50 years.

Like Iraq, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are now free and democratic did not have a sustained history of democratic rule before they fell under the spell of Soviet power in 1945.

To Europeans, the experience of Poland in the late 1970s is the key test case for assessing whether a country is "ripe for the taking."

What Poland's turn to democracy demonstrates is the importance of a number of lessons: First and foremost, there needs to be sufficient domestic "buy-in" for such a successful transition away from oppression.

Absent the Poles' inspiring courage, they could not have undertaken their gradual transformation to democracy. Starting in 1980, Lech Walesa and Solidarity were chipping away at the foundation of Poland’s communist government.

Even before that, Karol Wojtyla — the bishop of Krakow who moved to the Vatican after becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978 — was an inspiring leader. Tanks or no tanks, he was not afraid to take a public stand against communism and government officials.

Even more important, without the Poles’ great deal of courage throughout the 1980s, other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, would not have developed a similar degree of courage that allowed them to opt for democratization at the end of the decade.

Another key factor on the road to democracy was the stance of religious authorities in Poland and abroad. Even from Rome, Pope John Paul II — supported by the Polish church — continued to play a major role in inspiring devoutly Catholic Poles to stand up to Communist governments throughout the region.

All of these considerations are very relevant in the Middle East today. What Eastern Europe teaches is that without a sufficient degree of domestic buy-in, any force intervening from the outside is setting itself up politically for a terrible tragedy.

As current events in Iraq underscore time and again, the underlying risk is that the liberated people will feel emasculated — simply because they had proven incapable of engendering positive change from the inside. They are painfully aware that they did not fight for their own freedom, read: earn it (in their own eyes).

This is all the more true when, as in Iraq today, all major religious authorities refuse to side openly with the liberators — and some even work very actively against them.

True, a liberation strategy that ignores these factors may succeed despite the odds. But if it fails, or if it is very shaky, the presumed liberator inevitably sets himself up psychologically in a very uncomfortable position — that of the former dictator.

And that is, one surmises, precisely what's happening in Iraq today.

Many people in that society, especially among male Iraqis, must have a sour taste in their mouth for having lived under a dictatorship for so long — without creating enough openings toward at least a gradual liberalization.

It is highly uncomfortable to live with the daily reminder of one's impotence. Even if the whole transformation is ultimately successful, that feeling of impotence may linger.

Which is why the easiest thing to do in the interim is to express toward U.S. soldiers all the pent-up frustrations the Iraqi people had to suppress day in and day out while living under Saddam's rule.

Ultimately, though, they may be deflecting their self-hatred onto the American soldiers — not an enviable position to be in for either side.

If, for all of these reasons, one adopts the standard of a sufficient amount of domestic "buy-in" as a requirement for intervention, then a surprising result emerges: Iran would have been a riper target for intervention than Iraq. The Iraqis had simply not yet done enough to be liberated — but the Iranians have.

Ultimately, what the story of Poland and the eventual liberation of all of Eastern Europe teaches outsiders is the value of patience.

Until enough people on the inside of the country in question feel ready "to go for it", it is probably not advisable even for a superpower to intervene absent a clear and present danger. The risks of intervention are just too high — no matter how noble the liberation motif is supposed to be.